12 bucket list destinations in the Canadian Rockies

12 bucket list destinations in the Canadian Rockies
The Rocky Mountaineer offers spectacular views of the mountains [Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer]

The Canadian Rockies as a whole are a bucket list destination for people around the world. Banff and Jasper are always filled with tourists gleefully gazing at the lakes and mountains, as if they can’t seem to believe that the majestic peaks and glacier-fed waters are real.

While just walking through the natural wonder is a glorious experience, if you happen to find yourself visiting what are arguably the most beautiful mountains in the world, you’re likely going to want to do something more than stand and stare at nature. It’s a big area and there are a lot of things to see and do, but these 12 experiences definitely fall into the “see it at least once in your lifetime” category.

1. Lake Louise

Lake Louise is the biggie, the one that the giant tour buses pull up in front of so people can see the postcard-perfect lake with their own eyes. Banff’s most famous lake is just as intensely blue in real life as it is in postcards and it’s also surrounded with hiking paths to help you get an even better view. Yes, this is the tourist favourite, but it’s more than earned its reputation.

2. Columbia Icefields

The largest icefield in the Rockies, the Columbia Icefield straddles the border between Banff and Jasper National Parks and lies across the Continental Divide. The glaciers are visible from the main road, but you can get a closer look at the Athabasca Glacier via a glacier tour, or go for an overhead view with a walk out on the glass-bottomed Columbia Icefield Skywalk.

12 bucket list destinations in the Canadian Rockies

3. Maligne Canyon

Probably Jasper’s most popular hiking spot, Maligne Canyon is an ultra-deep slot canyon (the deepest in the Rockies) filled with waterfalls and springs. Hike out to the sixth bridge to get unbelievable views or go out in the winter to watch ice climbers scale the frozen falls. Don’t skip the Maligne Canyon Wilderness Kitchen, a truly delicious barbecue restaurant that also prepares picnic lunches for you to take on your hike.

4. Jasper Park Lodge

All of the Fairmont properties in the Rockies are special, but there’s something absolutely magical about the Jasper Park Lodge. The 700-acre mountain resort is comprised of a village of cabins, offering the feeling of a true mountain getaway. In addition to the beauty of the adjacent Lac Beauvert and an award-winning golf course, the Lodge also regularly puts on special culinary events and offers dark sky watching experiences.

5. Banff Gondola

There are plenty of mountains to climb in Banff National Park, but the Banff Gondola will get you up Sulphur Mountain with minimal effort. Once you’re at the top, drink in the phenomenal view and walk along a boardwalk to get even higher. You’ll also find Sky Bistro at the summit, an exceptional restaurant serving Canadiana cuisine and locally sourced drinks.

6. Island Lake Lodge

You can’t do a Rockies bucket list without including skiing. While all the chairlift resorts are great, advanced ski enthusiasts should try out the thrill of catskiing at Island Lake Lodge near Fernie, British Columbia. The charming lodge is open year round: in the summer, stay for a day of hiking or foraging, a trip to the on-site spa and a meal in the lodge’s renowned dining room.

12 bucket list destinations in the Canadian Rockies
The trees in Larch Valley turn a deep golden in the fall [Paul Zizka, Banff & Lake Louise Tourism]

7. Larch Valley

There are countless hiking trails in Banff National Park, but few are as memorable as Larch Valley and the adjacent Sentinel Pass — provided you time it in the fall when the golden yellow larch trees are in season.

8. Rat’s Nest Cave

Where there’s mountains, there should also be caves. One of the most famous in the disturbingly named Rat’s Nest, located near Canmore and only accessible by guided tour (there’s actually a locked gate on it to protect the fragile formations that lurk within). Canmore Cave Tours offers many different ways to experience the cave and even offers the occasional in-cave concert.

9. Mt. Norquay Via Ferrata

“Via Ferrata” is Italian for “iron road” — it’s basically a climbing course, set up with an system of cables and ladders to keep you from falling. There are a few Via Ferrata set-ups in Canada, but the one at Mt. Norquay is one of the most dramatic. Ride the summer chairlift up to the course, then choose one of four routes, based on your fitness level and nerve.

12 bucket list destinations in the Canadian Rockies

10. Kananaskis Nordic Spa

Kananaskis is one of the most beautiful spots in the Rockies, made even more lovely when you’re relaxing in an outdoor Nordic spa. Move from hot steam room or sauna treatments to warm pools to cold pools, then rest in a warm hammock and repeat, all while gazing up at the mountains.

11. Rocky Mountaineer

If hiking isn’t your thing, why not explore the Canadian Rockies by train? The Rocky Mountaineer is a luxury railway trip, taking passengers through the Rockies, with stops at many must-see locations, depending on the package you go with.

12. River Rafting

Get mountain views you’ll never see from the highway from the rivers snaking though the Rockies. Canmore Raft Tours offers nice ‘n’ easy floats down the Bow river (you can even do one that ends with a craft brewery tour) or you could go for a true white water adventure down the Kananaskis with an outfitter like Chinook Rafting.